If the Prophet Amos were to come to our world today, he would probably feel very much at home; for he lived at a time such as ours when society was changing radically. Both Israel and Judah were at peace with their neighbors, which meant that their wealth and energy could be used for developing their nations instead of fighting their enemies. Both kingdoms were prosperous; their cities were expanding rapidly; and a new wealthy merchant class was developing in society. The two kingdoms were moving from an agricultural to a commercial society and experiencing both the benefits and problems that come with that change.
However, in spite of their material success, all was not well with God's chosen people. They were experiencing what the British poet Oliver Goldsmith wrote about back in 1770:
Ill fares the land, to hast'ning ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay…
There were ills aplenty in all the lands of that day, the Gentile nations as well as the Jewish kingdoms of Israel and Judah; and Amos wasn't afraid to name them. He opened his book with a denunciation of the sins of six Gentile nations, and no doubt the people of Israel and Judah applauded his words. Nothing would make the Jews happier than to see the Lord judge the surrounding nations. But when Amos denounced Judah and Israel, that was a different story; and his popularity began to suffer at that point.
God wanted to get the nations' attention, but people weren't listening. You'd think they could hear a lion roar or the thunder roll and know that danger was at hand. God was speaking ("thundering") from Jerusalem, for judgment always begins at the house of the Lord (1 Peter 4:17). He had sent drought to the land so that even fruitful Carmel was withering, but it didn't bring the people to their knees. So God called a common farmer to preach to His people and warn them. "A lion has roared! Who will not fear? The Lord God has spoken! Who can but prophesy?" (Amos 3:8 nkjv)
Eight times Amos used the phrase "for three transgressions and for four," a Jewish idiom that means "an indefinite number that has finally come to the end." God is longsuffering with sinners (2 Peter 3:9), but He marks what they do and His patience eventually runs out. To try God's patience is to tempt the Lord; and when we tempt the Lord, we invite judgment.
Syria (Amos 1:3-15). Damascus was the capital of Syria, one of the Jews' persistent enemies. Amos denounced the Syrians for their inhuman treatment of the Israelites who lived in Gilead, east of the Jordan River. They cruelly "threshed them" as though they were nothing but stalks of grain. God had called the Syrians to punish Israel (2 Kings 10:32-33; 13:1-9), but the Syrians had carried it too far.
The man who began his prayer with "Lord, no doubt You saw in the morning newspaper…" was stating a great truth in a clumsy way: God sees how the nations treat one another, and He responds appropriately. Benjamin Franklin said it well at the Constitutional Convention, "I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth—that God governs in the affairs of men."
The phrase "I will send a fire" (Amos 1:4, 7, 10, 12, 14; 2:2, 5) means "I will send judgment"; for fire represents the holiness and judgment of God (Deut. 4:11, 24, 36; Heb. 12:29). Indeed, the Lord did judge Syria: the dynasty of King Hazael ended; his son Ben-Hadad was defeated; Damascus lost its power (business was done at the city gate, Amos 1:5); and "the house of Eden" (delight, paradise) became a ruin. King Josiah defeated Ben-Hadad three times (2 Kings 13:25), but it was the Assyrians who finally subdued Syria and took them into captivity.
Philistia (Amos 1:6-8). Gaza, Ashdod, Ashkelon, Gath, and Ekron were the five key Philistine cities (Josh. 13:3), and Amos denounced all of them for trading in human lives. They raided Jewish villages and captured people to be sold as slaves. To add insult to injury, the Philistines sold these slaves to Israel's ancient enemy, the Edomites. Since Edom was descended from Esau, Jacob's brother, it was a case of brother enslaving brother. (God had something to say to Edom in Amos 1:11-12.)
Throughout the history of ancient Israel, slavery was practiced, but the Law of Moses clearly governed how the slaves were treated. The law that permitted slavery at the same time protected the slaves. However, it was one thing to put a prisoner of war to work and quite something else to kidnap innocent people and sell them like cattle. Neither Jesus nor the apostles openly denounced slavery, but they made it clear that all people are sinners whom God loves and that all saved people are one and equal in Christ (Gal. 3:26-29). It took centuries for the light of the Gospel to dispel the darkness and make slavery illegal, although there are still places in our world where people are abused and exploited.
God's judgment on Philistia came in the days of King Uzziah (2 Kings 18:7-8) and the Assyrian invaders under Sargon and the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar. The slave masters were themselves taken into exile and slavery.
Tyre (Amos 1:9-10). Amos has moved from Damascus in the northeast to the Philistine cities in the southwest, and now he sets his sights straight north on Phoenicia and its major city, Tyre.
During the reigns of David and Solomon, Israel had a warm relationship with the people of Tyre (1 Kings 5:1ff). Amos called it "the brotherly covenant" ("treaty of brotherhood," niv), suggesting that the "covenant" was more than a treaty but involved a friendly partnership that that went deeper than politics. Even if the peoples of different nations don't agree in their religious practices or their political structures, they can still treat one another like fellow human beings.
Tyre, however, committed the same sins as the Philistine cities by selling Jewish captives to the Edomites as slaves (Amos 1:6-8). When the Prophet Ezekiel gave his funeral dirge celebrating the fall of Tyre, he mentioned this grievous sin (Ezek. 27:13). But Tyre's sin was worse than that of Philistia because Tyre was violating a longstanding compact that was based on friendship and mutual respect for humanity. Tyre was selling its friends as slaves!
Judgment came in 332 B.C. when Alexander the Great wiped Tyre off the face of the earth and left it a place for drying nets (26:5, 14). "Though the mills of God grind slowly / yet they grind exceeding small." When Rudyard Kipling published his poem "Recessional" during Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897, he used Tyre as a warning to any people who rebel against the will of God and mistreat men and women created in the image of God.
Far-called our navies melt away—
On dune and headland sinks the fire—
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday—
Are one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Edom (Amos 1:11-12). The Edomites nursed a longstanding grudge against the Jews, perpetuating the ancient rivalry between Jacob and Esau, which began before the twin boys were born (Gen. 25:21-26). In His sovereign will, God had chosen the younger brother, Jacob, to receive the blessings of the birthright and the Abrahamic Covenant (Mal. 1:2-3; Rom. 9:6-13). Esau despised his spiritual heritage and willingly sold his birthright to Jacob (Gen. 25:29-34; Heb. 12:14-17); but because Jacob cheated him out of the patriarchal blessing (Gen. 27), Esau vowed to kill Jacob. Later they were briefly reconciled, but the enmity continued (33:1-17). As far as the biblical record is concerned, their final meeting was at a funeral, where they buried their father but did not bury their bitterness (35:27-29).
The Edomites would not allow their Jewish cousins to pass through their land during Israel's march to Canaan (Num. 20:14-21). King Saul suppressed the Edomite army (1 Sam. 14:47), and David conquered them (2 Sam. 8:14), but in the days of King Jehoram, Edom revolted against Judah and won their freedom (2 Kings 8:16-22).
Amos condemned the Edomites for their persistent hatred of the Jews, "…because his anger raged continually and his fury flamed unchecked" (Amos 1:11 niv). We don't know when the Edomites aided the enemy by pursuing the Jews with the sword. It could have been during any one of the numerous times when enemies invaded the land. When the Babylonians attacked and captured Jerusalem, the Edomites assisted the enemy and gave vent to their anger (Obad. 10-14; see Ps. 137:7). You would think that brother would help brother in a time of need, but the Edomites "cast off all pity" (Amos 1:11) and acted like beasts instead of humans. The phrase "his anger did tear" (v.11) uses a verb that describes ferocious beasts tearing their prey (Ps. 7:2; Gen. 37:33).
Temen and Bozrah were strong cities that today don't exist. The Edomites lived "in the clefts of the rock" and had their "nest among the stars" (Obad. 3-4), boasting that their fortresses were impregnable; but the Lord destroyed their nation so thoroughly that nothing is left today except ruins. When the Romans attacked Jerusalem in A.D. 70, they destroyed what was left of the Edomite (Idumean) people, and Edom was no more.